Saturday, February 27, 2010

Have your cake and eat it too

So tonight, we are invited to a loser's party. This is not a small event. Our community has a tennis tournament in the winter months, to blast away the doldrums. Anyone can play -- but here's the rub: the better you are, the less skilled your assigned partner will be. This makes for interesting tennis (think, Roger Federer teamed with Phyllis Diller), and as we get towards the finals, big crowds at the tennis court, drinking, betting, cheering.

The invite to this party reads as follows: "Calling all losers! All losers welcome! All potential losers welcome! All winners married to losers welcome!" (For the record, I am not a loser. My partner pulled her calf muscle during our second round match and we had to forfeit. In fact, though we were down a set, we were coming back. That will always be the legend.)

But as I am married to a loser, we will go.

Our hostess delineates potluck responsibilities as follows: If your name starts with A-M, bring an appetizer and cheer. We, with our R and our S, fall into dessert and cheer. My husband requested a replay of a cake that I made last week to send to my step-daughter at college. It is not a "real" cake, so I didn't post it here, but it certainly was something to see, with several tons of glittery sprinkles dumped on it by two enthusiastic 5-year-olds. I am sorry I do not have a picture. Suffice to say, that it didn't last long at all. Even my foodie pals scarfed it down in the car on the way home.

To be frank, for a loser's party sugar seems just the ticket. Plus, I was thinking about some interesting factoids that a friend sent me yesterday, courtesy of Foodlinks America. On January 14, the top trends  for 2010, predicted by chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association, were leaked. Demand for local produce was number one, followed by locally sourced meats and local beer and wine,  respectively. Bite-size mini dishes and half-portions followed, along with healthy kid's plates. Sustainability was up there too.

Sounds perfect. My work here is done.

Except the same newsletter from December 14, just a month ago, details top-selling grocery items of 2009. Soda tops the list, with $12 billion in sales in 2009. Milk is second, then bread and rolls, beer, potato chips, cheese, frozen dinners, cold cereal, wine and cigarettes.

So what's going on? We're going out and demanding raw cheese on our arugula, then coming home to light up, crack a brew and nuke dinner? Is the intersection of consumers and chefs only in the local beer aisle?

Because that makes us all losers. Or maybe we just haven't won yet. What if we could have our cake and eat it too: what happens if I try to make this cake "real?" Or at least, "natural?"

Let's be clear, this cake starts with a stick of butter and a cake mix, and ends with an entire bag of powdered sugar. Just typing that makes my teeth hurt. (The pre-school class went to the dentist this week, and sang him this song: "Brush, brush, brush your teeth, every time you eat. Visit your dentist twice a year for a smile that can't be beat." It even has hand motions which they do with real toothbrushes. I am sure he would have flunked the field trip if they knew about this cake.) Now I don't think I can make it any less sweet -- nor would I want to -- but I set out to see what would happen if I substituted all these ingredients with organic, whole ingredients. And made it gluten free.

(You can check out the original cake recipe, which I got from my Aunt Alice but is also online in detail like crazy at This is a blog written by sisters in Winchester, Indiana, just miles south of the small town both my parents grew up in, and where my Aunt Alice still lives.) 

So I got a gluten free cake mix, and organic butter and cream cheese, and am using Mary Dunbar's eggs. I can't find a sub for the powdered sugar, so that will remain conventional. Here's what happened: it was beautiful. High and light, with a crackly spun sugar top like creme brulee. Okay, sort of. It's not too real. But it sure is good. More sophisticated, more complex, less sugary sweet than the first. A cakier base, with the cream cheese topping oozing gooey beneath the sugar crackle. Of course it didn't have three tons of sugar decorations on it but I think it's more than that. It's still the Midwest, but it's dressed for dinner.


Loser Cake
Adapted from Alice Strohl

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

1 yellow cake mix ( I used gluten-free pantry)
3 eggs
1 stick melted butter

1 box powdered sugar
1 package cream cheese

Beat 2 eggs with a fork in 9 x 13 pan. Add cake mix and butter and stir to combine. Spread to evenly coat pan. In a separate bowl, beat sugar cream cheese and remaining egg for 5 minutes with mixer on medium. Do not use a stand mixer as the sugar will not combine. Spread over cake dough. Bake 30 minutes.

The losers will love it.


Monday, February 22, 2010

A drumstick that is bang on

You know how, some days, when you wake up and it's sunny out your window and your child is smiling and you don't overflow the oatmeal and you think -- it's going to be a perfect day.

I haven't had one of those in a very long while. Most certainly, not today.

I won't go into the specifics, except to say it involves a five-year-old, a screwdriver and a piano.

I already want to go back to bed.

On days like these, when it's cold out and there's snow lingering and more on the way, there is only one thing I like for dinner.


And luckily I have some. This is a recipe adapted from a Food and Wine spa issue long ago, one of those January issues which are mindful of the after-holiday thrift but also well aware that it is darn still winter and people do want to eat. And drink.

It uses turkey drumsticks, which make brilliant party fare. They plate up large and impressive, like a medieval banquet. They are oh so tasty delicious and -- bonus -- they are cheap. And this recipe can be made up to three days ahead, so you can enjoy your company, not just cook for them. I serve the stew over polenta, made with Bob's Red Mill grains  just as he suggests on the packet, and a simple salad. Oh, and I always double it, for just such occasions as today. For as lovely as it is for dinner, it is thrice as good on the morrow, when you haven't anything to do at all but put your feet up and Enjoy.  

Turkey  Stew with Prunes and Pearl Onions
adapted from Food and Wine

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 turkey drumsticks (about 14 ounces each)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
4 thyme sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
3 cups home made turkey or chicken stock, or store bought will do
1 cup pitted prunes (6 ounces)
1/2 cup brandy
1 cup white pearl onions (1/4 pound)

Preheat the oven to 325°. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large enameled cast-iron casserole. Saute turkey drumsticks, seasoned with salt and pepper, over moderately high heat until browned all over, about 8 minutes; transfer to a plate. Do in turns if your pot necessitates. Discard the fat.

Add the wine to the casserole and cook over moderate heat, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom, until reduced to 1/2 cup. Tie the herbs with string, add to the pot with the drumsticks and stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and braise in the oven for 1 1/2 hours, turning the drumsticks occasionally, so they get coated with sauce.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, soak the prunes in the brandy until plump, about 30 minutes. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the pearl onions and blanch for 2 minutes, then drain and let cool slightly. Trim the root ends of the onions and slip off the skins. Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a small skillet. Add the pearl onions and cook over moderately high heat until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.

Add the onions, prunes and any remaining brandy to the casserole. Cover and braise for 1 hour longer, or until the turkey drumsticks are tender.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the turkey, prunes and pearl onions to a platter. Discard the herb bundle. Skim the fat off the cooking liquid, then simmer the liquid over moderate heat until reduced to 1 1/2 cups, about 30 minutes. Return the turkey, prunes and onions to the casserole, simmer until hot and serve.

If you care, per serving:  503 calories, 9.0 gm total fat, 2.1 gm saturated fat, 34 gm carb.

As with all food, try to find naturally raised birds; the nutritional content will be better, toxins lesser. If you don't have a source, look to But don't fret about it. The recipe is quite healthy any way.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fat Tuesday

When my husband is away, my 5-year-old and I often have breakfast-for-dinner. This usually means that I have no plan for food and we will pour milk on cereal and play Candyland, then eat ice cream cones.

So today, when a friend's 5-year-old asked if we were having pancakes for supper, it made supreme sense. I am not super-religious, rather, I think I am spiritual. Pagan, a good friend once said. But I like the idea of Shrove Tuesday -- use up all the butter and eggs in the house before the Lenten Fast -- and while I was planning to use the eggs and butter to make a cake to send to my step-daughter in college (promise we'll do that tomorrow!), pancakes seemed way more fun. And a little bit spiritual.

There is only one thing about pancakes: I have been gluten-free for almost two years, and never met a gluten-free pancake to write home about. Or anywhere, for that matter. My husband, bless him, tries every so often of a Sunday to throw together some vehicle for syrup we can all eat. So far, no dice.

It is important to mention that NO home-made pancake has ever made the grade with me, gluten or no. You see, there is a pancake of legend in my gluten-ous past. It is served in a dive called Dick's Harbor House, on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, New York, and is fluffy, high, light and full of flavor. I have tried to pry the chef's secret from many a waitress, including my earnest friend Carolyn, to no avail; they just shake their head sadly and roll their eyes. I've never ventured back to the kitchen ask the cook himself (or herself) but I think in part that might be because I secretly fear it will be so disgusting back there I may never return. But despite this lack of hard evidence, I have for years suspected that the secret ingredient may just be vanilla.

So tonight, Shrove Tuesday, I put aside the visions of flat, burned discs of rice flour and embarked on a mission: fluffy, light, flavorful pancakes. Gluten-free.

Talk about your 100-year snow.

Armed with vanilla extract that I request from a girlfriend who vacations in Mexico each year, I hit the stove, 5-year-old and all. I made it up while he measured and stirred. Then he played me a little electric guitar while I fried them.

It might be the electric guitar that did it. Next time I am at Dick's, I will inquire if the cook plays. Because darned if these weren't the lightest-fluffiest- yummiest pancakes I've ever turned out. And did I mention they are gluten free?

I won't tell if you won't.

Fat Pancakes

1/4 cup rice flour
3/4 cup sweet rice flour (I think it would be fine to use all one or the other, I had just a little in a bag to use up)
1/2 cup tapioca flour (also sold as tapioca starch)
4 tablespoons dry buttermilk powder
3 teaspoons vanilla sugar (fill a jar with sugar and stir with a split vanilla pod, store until needed - which I promise will be more than you think, once you have it. In fact you may wonder how you ever didn't have it)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
sprinkle of cinnamon sugar (I have a shaker on hand with raw sugar and ground cinnamon for just such emergencies)
2 eggs
3 tablespoons applesauce
1 1/2 cups water

Mix or sift dry ingredients together. Stir in the eggs and applesauce. With a whisk, incorporate water slowly -- you may need more or less depending on how thick you like your pancakes. I have one person here who only likes crepes, and this batter, with more liquid, makes a fine one.

Heat a griddle and melt some butter. Pour batter into rounds, or Mickey Mouse heads, or the initials of your favorite rock star. When uncooked side begins to bubble, slide a spatula under the cake and flip in one deft go. Cook another 5 minutes or so (again, depending on the thickness of your batter), plate and butter. Serve with real maple syrup, preferably from just down the road, or from Indiana.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Snow day .. after day .. after day ..

In the beginning, the snow was beautiful, fun, and we were filled with an appropriate sense of wonder. We dug a fort, made angels and snowballs, romped with the dogs. We lit fires and read books and cuddled on the couch under fuzzy blankets. We giggled a lot.

And we cooked. We made pancakes, s'mores over open fire, banana bread. Bison ragu, hand made pizza and lamb chops. Bottles of chewy red wine were consumed slowly, with meatloaf spiked with bacon, and Cesar salad made from Julia's own recipe. Pumpkin souffles were enticed to their highest peaks, cupcakes crowned with maple frosting, cheesecakes with raspberry hearts (it was, after all, St. Valentine's Day). When neighbors ventured over we celebrated by revisiting Nigella's yummy Christmas in a cup, which welcomed us like ex-pats to their native land.

Now the snow wanes (though more is promised tomorrow), drifts of 7 feet are plowed to the side, cast off like yesterday's news, children return to school and writers to their work. Our bleary-eyed appetites want a week at the spa, as if to recover from another round of holiday eating. But before we forget, here are a few of the highlights. Cheers!

Winter Champagne
adapted from Nigella Lawson

Put drizzle of gingerbread syrup (I got this at Starbucks, half-off after the holidays) or a candy cane in a champagne glass. Pour Proseco or other sparkler over. Stir with an icicle (optional).


Bison Ragu
1 lb. ground bison
1/2 onion, chopped fine
2 celery ribs, chopped fine
1 T olive oil
1 T dried mushrooms
1 box mushrooms (I used Baby Bella) chopped
1 cup chicken broth
white wine
Fresh thyme

Boil water and pour 1/4 cup over dried mushrooms. Set aside.

Heat oil in pan and drizzle a few pinches of sea salt over. Add onion and stir until translucent. Add celery and stir another few minutes, until onion is beginning to brown and celery is translucent.

Add bison and stir to break up while sauteeing. Pour water off dried mushrooms into pan, add broth, a generous slug of white wine and three stalks of fresh thyme. Add chopped mushrooms, stir in, cover and let cook another 10 minutes.

Remove cover, take thyme stalks out (the leaves will have fallen off into the ragu). If you like, thicken ragu: take 1/4 cup of broth from ragu, add 1 t cornstarch and mix well. Pour back into pan and mix. Let mixture bubble five minutes longer to thicken.

Good over noodles, rice or baked potatoes. Topped with sour cream, if you wish.


Chicken braised with celery root
adapted from Gourmet

3 lbs chicken parts --- with skin and bones
1 t olive oil
1 t butter
1 celery root bulb, peeled and 1/4" dice
3 heads of garlic
1 cup chicken broth
2 fresh thyme sprigs

Pat chicken dry and season with sea salt and pepper. heat oil in heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot. Brown chicken, turning once, 8-10 minutes. Remove chicken from skillet and pour off all but 1 T fat.

Add butter to skillet and heat until foam subsides, then add celery root and garlic. Stir until browned about 5 minutes.

Add broth and thyme and up the heat, scraping up browned bits on bottom of skillet, until broth boils 1 minute. Return chicken to pan, reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through (about 20-25 minutes, I always take its temperature and make sure it's over 160 degrees).

Serve chicken with celery root. Squeeze garlic out of skin and eat solo or on crusty bread.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Frisee, our way ..

My husband and I have a Christmas tradition that started when we lived in DC, bC. We walk down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House Christmas tree to the Capital Christmas tree, to compare the First Lady's decorations to the wife of the Speaker of the House's finery. Then we scamper joyously into Bistro Bis, the restaurant at the Hotel George, for drinks and dinner. It is usually quite cold and dark by the time we hit the lounge, and our feet are muddy (we do have an annoying habit of jumping the rope and getting up close and personal with the Capital tree to evaluate the ornaments, which some years look as if they were crafted by kindergarteners from all 50 states, or by hillbillies). We snuggle into a booth and order rum cosmos and frisee salad, not necessarily in that order. What follows next varies, depending on the offerings that evening, but the cosmos and the frisee are non-negotiable.

photo: Kevin Ambrose, Washington Post

A good frisee salad is hard to come by in this town. The key is the lardons, which most Americans shudder even to pronounce, so inaugurated in anti-fat are we. But the lardon is like the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box - infinitely worth waiting for. The perfect lardon is hard on the outside, with a definite crunch through to a meaty center, little bacon dice which nudge the salad into song, generally Allons Enfants de la Patrie. Tangy warm shallot vinaigrette, which gets an ooze of creamy yolk after you poke the poached egg, coat the crisp, curly frisee fronds.

This year, we did not get to do this. The first edition of "Snowmageddon," occurred the day of our appointed Christmas pilgrimage, and we did not venture in from Virginia in the 18" of snow that ensued. Which kind of makes us look lame, considering that as I write this, with 36" of snow out of doors, 18" is chicken scratch.

But a week later, Christmas food shopping at Wegman's, a couple of heads of crisp frisee caught my eye. I grew frisee in my garden last year, just because it is so hard to meet, but now here it was, in the middle of winter, left high and dry by the crowds of people in panic mode, shopping as if they might be stuck in their homes until Labor Day. It was not local, nor organic, although since it was in the same row as the organic produce, I reasoned it was at least not too far away.

I brought it home with me, coddled it and hit up my freezer.

Lardon, according to Larousse Gastronomique, are strips cut from the belly fat of pork, diced abou 1/2 inch thick and used to flavor savory dishes. We have, in our town, a wonderful institution called Farmer Girls Online, which offers year round access to local purveyors, among them several incredible meat producers. I had several packages of belly bacon, and opened one from Ole Pioneers Kitchen.

photo: Ayreshire Farm, Upperville, VA

Grace Brock runs Ole Pioneers Kitchen from her home in Vienna, where she uses her grandfather's recipes to make sausages and bacon. All her meat is locally sourced, which gives her the freedom to only buy the best cuts, which she defats by hand before making the final product. "I haven't had the test done, but from what I take off the meat I would say my meat is 88-90 percent fat free," says Grace, who started the business when she retired as a software analyst for Homeland Security.

"I wanted to stay home and organize my closets, but I got bored," laughs the Argentinian. "My grandfather had a butcher shop in Buenos Aires, so I had all his recipes." She uses traditional dry curing of choice cuts to make her bacon flavorful, not additives, and the products have just enough fat to brown up beautifully.

Grace's low in fat bacon proved perfect for these lardons, as the vinaigrette is best with olive oil to finish. Let them eat Lardons!
photo: Farmer Girls Online

Frisee Salad with Lardons

2 heads frisee
2 shallots, diced fine
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
sea salt
two eggs
1/2 cup thick bacon, diced

Cook bacon over low heat until brown. Remove from pan with slotted spoon and reserve about 1 t fat. Add shallots to oil and brown slowly. Add vinegar, cover, let steam. In the meantime, wash frisee, trim bottom and set in two dishes, whole. Boil water in another pan and turn to a simmer, add a touch of vinegar (this keeps eggs from getting wispy in the boiling water). Poach eggs until desired consistency -- I like them runny, as we have established, so about 3 minutes. Garnish frisee with egg, pinch of sea salt, and diced bacon. Finish dressing with a splash of fresh olive oil and drizzle over salad.

Voila. Wait. What is that, in the background (Allons Enfants de la Patrie ..)???


Monday, February 8, 2010

The best sunset around

I have a friend who is constantly keeping score in her head - with factors that at first glance might seem trivial but are really very wise indicators, when you think about it, like food, and sunsets, and the type of beer you take out on a boat. For instance, if she likes what you order at a restaurant, she gives you dibs for "trading power." In fact she is from such a foodie family that when she and her husband go out to eat with their in-laws, they nibble on their actual entrees, then all pass to the left, again and again until their entree gets back to them; sort of a foodie's game of operator. (We did this with them once, of course years before H1N1, and even without the germ implications I did not take to this method of eating. When I got back my plate, there were only scraps left, and all the good bits had been scarfed right up. I am much more of a stick-your-fork-in-your-husband's-food sort of sharer. I have no idea where I got this; my family does not like to share at all. It's family lore that my Grandaddy once stuck a fork in the back of my mother's hand when she tried to sample from his plate. My father once, just recently, invited me to try something he ordered and I nearly wept with gratitude and wonder.)

But I didn't mean to get into a treatise on sharing, although I now see its potential for character analysis. I did mean, however, to get into my friend Rachel's labeling. She once told me that our friend Liz had the best porch for sunset drinks. Period. Now, we have a pretty good western aspect (in fact just today my friend Todd said it might just be the best around these parts). She's been out here and while she didn't mention the sunset, she did say it was like going to Italy. (I'm still not sure why, I was not actually here that weekend.) Italy is pretty good.

But we do have these killer sunsets. Take the other night for example. I'd been cooking up a storm all day, as if to keep pace with the weather outside, maybe to ensure that if we had to be stuck, it was at least going to be tasty. Maybe I was just building some kind of food fortress against the elements. Anyway, we got out our chewiest Cabernet and stoked the fire. That is when I realized I had no cashews. My Grandaddy, he of the fork, always had a dish of Planter's dry-roasted peanuts with his gin; my uncle John has the same predilection. For me, it is cashews. I buy them raw and whole, sprinkle them with olive oil and sea salt, occasionally strewing some rosemary or chopped bacon with, and brown them under the broiler. I put a few in a small pottery dish and savor each one with my cocktail. If my children stick their fingers in - well, let's just say that I too can wield a fork.

So here I was, with 30" of snow on the ground and more coming, and the cashew jar registering just a few lame shards and salt. Did I panic? No, but I was not happy. Until I remembered a bag of beautiful Brussels Sprouts in the garage fridge, purchased in my snow fever for no particular purpose other than it seemed like, if I was going to be stuck in my house for a few days, it would be good to have them on hand. So I halved them, and gave them the cashew treatment. Problem solved.

Roast Brussels Sprouts

1 lb. Brussels Sprouts
Olive Oil (I use the spray)
Coarse salt

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Trim bottom off sprouts and any brown leaves. Cut in half length-wise. Oil baking sheet. Place sprouts, cut half down, on baking sheet and spray oil over, then sprinkle with salt. Roast 10 minutes, or until bottom is carmelized. Turn over and brown other side, about 5 minutes more.

So I had my cab, and my carmelized tender morsels of goodness that were not cashews. I took a deep breath. The snow had finally stopped. And, after dumping three feet of snow on us in one day, the gods, as if laughing at us for trying to control our world, brought forth the brightest smile since Dorothy got home to Kansas. I put down my drink and took the pears to the table outside in the snow.

This is a recipe my mother has been making for years. She calls them "wrinkled pears."
And they are. You cook these babies so long and so slow, they have more crevices than a sumo wrestler after a long tub. But renaming them "Sunset Pears" could be constructed as valid. Number One, you start with firm Bosc pears, which, in their prime, have the mustard and pink tones of a perfect day's end. Number Two, they are dinner's ideal finish - not too sweet and smooth, as soothing as a down pillow. They are the perfect treat when you are feeling like maybe you don't so much want to work off the calories for a treat (as my neighbor says, if I have to be on the treadmill an hour for this wine, I better enjoy it.) And number three: well, see for yourself.

Wrinkled Pears

2 cups port
1.5 cup honey
2 whole star anise
3 cinnamon sticks
1 t whole peppercorns
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1/2 cup raisins
12 Bosc pears (select firm pears that barely give)

Heat oven to 300 degrees. In a large roasting pan combine the port, honey, star anise, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, vanilla bean and raisins. Don't obsess if you don't have all these spices. I frequently forget one of them. Star anise, though hard to find, is worth procuring for just this recipe. They are beautiful things, and I often put one on each plate just for the effect.

Slice a small round from the bottom of pears, so they stand. Place in pan.

Bake pears, basting every 15 minutes, until the skin is wrinkled and the pears are tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Put each pear on a plate and pour syrup over.

Now, Rachel - seriously, how's the view?


Friday, February 5, 2010

Why did the chicken cross the road? Would you believe he was in a curry?

The chicken is a versatile, humble creature, able to be both the best and the worst of culinaria. Let's skip the worst, and just admit: There is something about a roast chicken that not only welcomes you home but pulls up a chair and says 'Bon Appetit.' It is unremarkable on the highway to divine.

There are many ways to roast a chicken. I happen to like Mark Bittman's quick method most: put a metal roasting pan in the oven, turn it to 450 degrees. When the oven is hot, put the chicken in the pan. This sears it and cuts the roasting time, though I have never met his record of 45 minutes. I also like the versions (Ina Garten has one) that stuff it fuller than a skinny man at a hot dog eating contest with garlic.

These are Sunday, lazy afternoon roast chickens, that slowly fill the house with smells of comfort and joy, that, when pricked, ooze pure gold juices to mix with heavy cream into a heavenly gravy. But I often do not have time for these roast chickens, however much I might idolize them. That is why, for me, the advent of rotisserie ovens in many local groceries is up there with the great events of the 21st century. (The 20th century, I am pretty sure, was the ATM card.)

There they are, right when you walk in the store, with their rich, lazy Sunday afternoon attitudes, even on a Tuesday at 7 p.m. when you haven't an idea about dinner. Their smell assails you as you enter the supermarket, changing dinner from a scary prospect to a delightful one in a whiff. I have been known to drive 15 miles out of my way for a rotisserie chicken. Once, when I got there and none were left, I was so bereft that the frightened manager gave me 'I owe you's' for three chickens.

But what really rocks about a rotisserie chicken is the day after. Because you have all this plump, moist chicken waiting patiently for something special to happen to it. You can chop it, grind it, puree it, sautee it, stir fry it -- it cares not. It's date night for this chicken, and it's ready to go. Especially somewhere exotic, somewhere it can put on rouge and a silk scarf. That, you'll agree, means curry.

Now, there are even more recipes for curry than there are for roast chicken, and like the chicken, I have tried my fair share. But what really puts the ease in easy for me has two ingredients. Making this a three ingredient dinner. See, I told you it could be simple.

Three Ingredient Chicken Curry

1 1/2 cups coconut milk (You can use lite, if you are concerned about fat, or even coconut milk beverage, which is deceivingly creamy -- So Delicious makes one that posts only 50 calories a cup.)
1/4 cup curry paste (Patak's Mild Curry Paste is a good choice, I have another I like as well, or better, it's more subtle, but harder to come by.)
Diced rotisserie chicken, about 4 cups

Heat the coconut milk, add the curry paste and whisk to combine. Bring to a simmer and add the chicken. Let simmer 20 minutes or so more to really saturate the chicken. Or eat it immediately.
I crumbled some curry leaves in it last time which I had in the freezer from the Indian shop in Chantilly. Or you can use chopped fresh cilantro. That totally makes it necessary to change the name.

I think it's worth it if you do.

PS -- To kick this up a notch 'real food' wise, I like to get the chicken from one of two shops in our town that roast organic chickens (Home Farm, and Market Salamander, both on Main Street in Middleburg, Virginia, see links), rubbed with spices or just sea salt. Because I really do think that organic can make a difference in how healthy the chicken is. With real food, what it's been fed is a barometer of how well it, in turn, can feed you. (It's also important where it lived, for chickens that rove around are tastier than caged birds. No one I've read can explain this well. Most agree that they just taste more chicken-y. They are right. Try it.) And the other bonus is, I have an organic carcass for making broth. (More, much more on making broth later.)

I served this with a sweet potato puree, (boil two sweet potatos, a cup of baby carrots until tender. Drain, reserving small amount of liquid. Process until smooth, using either reserved liquid or cider, season with salt and pepper) which was a good counterpoint. But the spinach, now that was a joy, kicked out of being comfortable by studs of coriander.

Sauteed Spinach with Coriander

1 T olive oil
1 T coriander seeds (hint: buying spices in bulk in the Hispanic section of our supermarket makes them completely cheap -- you get a whole boatload for just a couple of bucks.)
1 t coarse sea salt
3 T slivered and peeled garlic
1 clamshell fresh baby spinach

Heat oil, add salt and coriander seeds. Add the garlic and turn until just browning. Add spinach and cover, letting it wilt. Off the heat and stir together.

I have found that roasting salt like this with spices heightens and emulsifies it, so it coats the food with a subtle picante, as a jewel tone scarf intensifies ocean blue eyes.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Chicken or egg? Definintely, egg ...

It seems a bit anticlimactic to start with eggs. But Mary Dunbar’s eggs are anything but mundane. They are velvety, both intense and fluffy at the same time, and the way they pop and crackle in butter when sprinkled with sea salt is the kind of thing worth crawling out from under the duvet for.

Mary Dunbar’s farm is just outside our town. She and her husband were computer programmers, “desk jockeys,” as she says, “totally stressed out.” So they quit and procured 22 rolling Virginia acres, which today are bathed in cold clear sunlight, the winter fields fallow and gold, the distant Blue Ridge glowing smoky purple.

“We wanted to see if we could provide ourselves with food,” she says, in her farmhouse kitchen that might be more at home in France, with hewn cupboards and vaulted ceilings. They did. “Sometimes one has too much. So we started selling it, and discovered that people do want natural things. I don’t want junk in my food, and I don’t think other people want junk in their food either.”

About a year ago, Mary Dunbar ordered 12 fuzzy chicks, which arrived in a box in the mail. They were Welsummers, a Dutch breed, with their sepia necks and forest green plumage, and Gold Sex Links, a cross of white Rhode Island Red and red Rhode Island Red chickens which has a chest of mottled ivory. Then, a friend gifted her some eggs, hatching a breed called Ameraucana, which lay beautiful pale green eggs the shade of sea foam. (Did you know there is actually a Leghorn breed, which looks just like its comic version? I did not.) Today she has about 50 chickens, spread between three penned hen houses. One pen holds the youngsters, still a few months from laying. Another pen holds the laying hens, and another the roosters. This is the noisiest pen; they crow constantly when we’re near, pleading for a snack. Francois, the lone Marans, a French breed, with his aristocratic dappled grey feathers, is so charming he comes to the edge of the fence to get his picture taken.

In winter, the pens surround the houses and Mary Dunbar feeds her chickens lettuce, greens, and slightly spoiled produce, such as tomatoes just gone soft. In summer, she enlarges the pens to take in more pasture, and totes them over to the vegetable garden and compost bed, so the birds can pick out all the nutrition in the soil.

“Weeding for me, is basically what they are doing,” says Mary. They are also getting the goods to lay eggs so rich and creamy that the yolks are shocking yellow, the color of ballpark mustard. The shells are speckled hues of chocolate and caramel and pale green, so hard one must rap them good to crack. The white and the yolk pool out and stand perkily, bubbling and growing as they cook in brown butter.

Eggs from hens raised picking pasture don’t just look and taste better – a recent study shows they are nutritionally superior as well. Among the perks: Four times the vitamin D, one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, twice the omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene than eggs from chickens raised in cages. (Ok, I know I promised we’d wait for the health benefit plug. I couldn’t help it – that is just too much good news.)

But let’s get to the important part, the eating of the egg. And for that I have to credit Sophie Dahl.

Let’s be clear: I am a recent convert to runny egg yolks, or any yolk at all, for that matter. When I was little, I had two unfortunate incidents with egg yolks, the first being after downing a box of my ailing Grandmother’s chocolate ExLax. When my mother discovered the source of my sticky five-year-old fingers, she and my aunts force-fed me a glass of yolks, Rocky-style, so I’d give up the ExLax, so to speak. Shortly after, my cousins (I the youngest of 6 at the time) and I decided to test a Seventeen magazine recipe for shiny hair. This entailed slathering mayonnaise in my hair, wrapping my head in aluminum foil and baking it under Grandmother’s bonnet hairdryer. I smelled like egg for days. I cannot recall whether my hair was shiny, but I am not repeating the experiment.

So (in my mind understandably), up until a few months ago, I hadn’t willingly eaten an egg yolk (unless my mom’s friend Elaine had deviled the delilah out of it) for more years than I am willing to commit to paper. Until Sophie Dahl.

I love Roald Dahl. His imaginative children’s books and clever, dark short stories, his writerly life, a cerebral existence in patched woolen sweaters in a fairy tale thatched countryside cottage (ok, that last is just my imagination, though it could be true). He came to my middle school in London when I was just on fire for books, and I have his autograph framed; it’s on yellowing, lined school note paper, complete with small, oily thumb stain. (I was not eating Cheetos. Cadbury, maybe.)

So when I saw his granddaughter Sophie’s cookbook, Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, at a London bookseller, I bought it immediately. Now, this book has plenty else to recommend it. It has thick substantive paper, as if to announce that its contents are tremendously worthy. It has luscious photos of food that make you want to try everything in there, and of Sophie herself looking so happy I wished I were a hip, blond London insider. It has, woven in, Sophie’s delightfully penned journey with food, which is an amazing one, especially considering she was a model, and a hip It-Brit party girl.

With the exception of my husband, I am not sure I have ever made a better choice. I love this book. Sophie Dahl’s philosophy is dead on. Eat real food. Prepare it simply. That yummy, delectable food that is good for you is not an oxymoron. Heard that before?

Swiss Chard with Eggs, adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights

Sophie’s version makes do with far less than we like – I use a whole head of chard and an entire onion, and give each person two eggs not one. She also sprinkles over goat cheese at the end, which I am always way too excited to remember. But the end result is, as she promises, “a miniature cosy meal .. nutty, more-ish and oh so good for you.”

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, diced small
1 head of swiss chard, large ribs removed, cut into 3/4” strips
Coarse sea salt
4 eggs, preferably from pastured hens

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in medium size skillet over medium heat. Add onion. As it begins to wilt, add sea salt and stir until translucent, about 5 minutes until golden, but not brown. Add chard, stir in until just wilted.

Divide between two small (4-6”) ramekins, or layer in one shallow baking dish. Crack two eggs per dish (or all four if you are baking together), taking care to keep the yolk whole. I sprinkle over another pinch of sea salt; skip it if you feel it’s excessive.

Bake at 350 degrees until the white is opague and the yolk is to your liking. (I like it to run when stabbed, leaking its golden juice over the nutty chard, and this usually takes 15 minutes or so baking in our oven, which is none too reliable). This is a dish that needs watching, or the eggs can overcook in a flash, which is just fine if you like firm yolks. I have been known to fish them out and start over, however, if mine aren’t perfection.

Move over, Rocky.